The 'Uprising' of 1648 by Todd Stevens

 Who really controlled the Pirates at Scilly

Mainly due to protestations by the Dutch, over pirates who had operated out of Scilly and Ireland for years, before and during the English civil war, historians appear to have portrayed islands Governor, Sir John Grenville, as being to blame for the problem. Indeed piracy in the seas concentrated around the Isles of Scilly was rife during this period; but was Grenville, whom was only 20 years of age at the time, really to blame?

Also, numerous reports about the islands involvement in the English civil war also need to be looked at again. For instance, it has been recorded that an uprising on these islands took place in 1648 by locals who favoured the Royalist cause. Again, I take new look at the evidence of this too. First we will look briefly into the so called Scilly uprising of 1648.  

The ‘Uprising’

It has often been written that the islands were staunchly Royalist during the English Civil War, and although indeed the islands had been under the control of Royalist forces since 1643, were the inhabitants themselves actually on either side? Or did they just wish to stay neutral? It appears from a petition sent to London on behalf of the islanders in 1642, that if anything, the Scillonians may have actually favoured the Roundhead cause over the Royalist. The letter is far too long to reproduce in its entirety here, but the following relevant passages taken from it, and set out below, give an indication where local allegiances appeared to lay during the conflict: ...”our intention towards the King and Parliament are as clear as glasse, and more transparent than the obscure malignity of those country animals, and quarrelling Cavaliers, men of great stomachs, better feeders than fighters”...........”and moreover it is our humble desire that we may be better acquainted with the new sects of Roundheads, being so like to us, the inhabitants of Silley, for all their doctrines, opinions, and tenets which they maintain doe all smell strong of the Isle of Silley Clear as glass indeed. This petition also goes on to show the islanders lack of commitment to any cause, by asking to be left alone to: “live in soft ease, and content, without trouble, but not a word of fighting, for we the inhabitants of Silley are men of weake stomachs and that doe hate gunnes and gunpowder, and therefore we are willing to be undone upon any condition, rather than to have our dearly beloved bodies suffer the hardnesse of Warres. So, with this petition in mind, what was the reality behind the 1648 uprising against Parliamentarian forces then holding the islands. The answer to this lays in the lives of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Vice Admiral John Mucknell a pirate turned privateer who was later knighted for his exploits.

After loosing Bristol to the Roundheads in September 1645 Prince Rupert, the overall commander of His Majesty’s forces there, was banished in disgrace by Charles I. Three years later, Rupert returned to aid his then beleaguered Monarch in 1648, who was then trapped on the Isle of Wight. Rupert was a soldier/cavalryman, yet for this task he took command of a fleet of 10 ships and sailed from Holland, with a plan to rescue King Charles. At this time, the Royalists had only two bases left for their ships, Ireland and the Channel Islands or even further away, as everywhere else was held by the Roundhead army. Rupert went to the more well fortified bases in Ireland of Wexford and Kinsale. Here Rupert joined forces with Vice Admiral John Mucknell whom then had under his command a further 11 ships; a fleet of pirates/privateers. This gave the pair a formidable force of 21 ships in all. Mucknell too had gone to Ireland after he was forced to flee the Parliamentarian navy, when Admiral Batten, with a vastly superior fleet consisting of 20 large men of war, sailed to seize Scilly from these royalist privateers in 1646. Now, together as a single force, Rupert and Mucknell resolved to retake control of Scilly away from the Parliamentarians. This was done to provide the King with a refuge/home, and themselves with a base for the two fleets. Once Scilly was retaken, Rupert, could then rescue Charles from the Isle of Wight. Prince Rupert, wrote to the beleaguered King of this idea: I doubt not, ‘ere long, to see Scilly a second Venice, it will be for our security and benefit; for if worst come to worst, it is but going to Scilly with this fleet, where, after a while, we may get the King good subsistence, and, believe, we shall make a shift to live, in spite of all factions


There was no ‘uprising’ by locals at Scilly in 1648. It was a successful venture to retake the islands by Rupert and Mucknell that year. It is recorded that Rupert then: sailed with a fleet to Scilly, from Kinsale, with (Irish) troops for that purpose. The idea was that on arrival, part of the fleet would land the troops and then some of the fleet would remain at Scilly to help supply and re-fortify the islands. Rupert, however, would stay only until this objective was achieved and it is stated in his memoirs that: having, for his first exploit, relieved the Scilly Islands and strengthened them with a considerable party of soldiers; all of which was done with part of the fleet- he then returned to Kinsale to look into the next part of his plan which was to rescue King Charles from the Isle of Wight. The-“part of the fleet,” mentioned in the above quote, were probably Mucknells’ ships; as he and his privateers were well acquainted with the islands having used them previously as a base from 1643 onwards.  There is no doubt that some locals may have joined with the royalists during this successful venture to seize Scilly back from the roundheads, but it was really all down to Prince Rupert and a sea born force made of Irish troops and Mucknells’ privateers.  Here is what was really behind the so called ‘uprising’ of Scilly in 1648. This successful mission allowed the King to appoint a new Governor to the islands; which came in the form of Sir John Grenville. Grenville arrived to take charge of Scilly in late November of 1648.

 Grenville the Pirate?

The Islands had been retaken but they needed to be held until Rupert arrived with the King. This meant a new deployment for the fleet left at Scilly who’s task it was to supply and defend the islands at least until then. This would have been a major change for Mucknell whom had previously just sailed in and out of Scilly and Ireland, attacking shipping where he found it, yet not really being beholden to anyone. Controlling a fleet at sea was also an undertaking with which Grenville, a landsman, had absolutely no experience. Whereas, Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, had been a devastating pirate with a vast career at sea as a Master within the English East India Company for many years previous. However, Mucknell was ordered by Rupert to aid Grenville and keep him supplied: with as much corn, salt, iron, and steel as the ships could stow and ask for butter or any other island commodity in return. Mucknells’ ships were seemingly now being used as a mere transport supply fleet, subordinate to Rupert to help Grenville. Here, between Mucknell and Grenville, was an uneasy peace.

Given the personalities of both Grenville and Mucknell, a fight for control of the pirate fleet under a clash of ego’s, made conflict between the pair an inevitability. Grenville, was in no way any easy person to get along with as he was referred to as being: “of odd humour” It was also reported that Grenville: “made himself so many enemies and so few friends” Whereas Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell had been a pirate turned privateer, having gained his title of Vice Admiral since then. Before the War, Mucknell had been an extremely successful and respected Commander at sea; he was used to giving orders not taking them from a landsman. (Rupert was royalty) Grenville, however, was totally inexperienced in Mucknells’ modus operandi. Moreover, on being given his Governorship at Scilly, Grenville, was criticized as being: “a person not fit to be trusted with so great employment and charges”  So did Grenville have command of the pirates or not?

Firstly it must be realized that Grenville had only arrived on the scene in late November 1648 yet had surrendered Scilly by 1651; never once having set sail himself as a pirate. Yet a serious problem of pirates at Scilly was being reported by the East India Company as far back as 1643, while the islands were under the Governorship of the Godolphin family. This piracy at Scilly was then exacerbated by the arrival of Captain John Mucknell in the ship John, of 44 guns which he lost at Scilly in 1645. Mucknell had previously organised the pirates into a singular fighting force; causing Scilly to then be referred to as: the second Algiers. Mucknell was then knighted by the Prince of Wales and given a title and a new ship the Mary of 24 guns with which to continue the good work. When Mucknell finally left Scilly in 1649, he did not relinquish any of his 11 ships to Grenville, and it would take over a year into the new Governor’s appointment before he was granted the use of any. When these vessels finally arrived they appear to have been quite small. If one looks more closely at Grenville’s requests for these ships presented below, it also becomes clear why it took so long for him to receive them. After the King was executed in 1649, Mucknells’ allegiance to Grenville showed, as he promptly abandoned Scilly taking his fleet with him and leaving Grenville to his own fate. Grenville was then forced to write to a Sir Edward Nicholas, requesting his Lordship to petition the King for ships: It hath been a great misfortune to the King’s service that no frigate hath been appointed for the service of this place…….and if His Majesty think fit to assign me some frigates I am confident I shall not for the future put His Majesty to any further trouble of this kind. However, this letter was dated just after the King had been executed in 1649, so Grenville must have been unaware of that fact when he wrote it. No ships were going to be granted by a dead King. Moreover, the Prince of Wales had long since fled Scilly to the Channel islands. Further to this, Prince Rupert had gone with his fleet to Portugal and Mucknell had now joined with Rupert again. Therefore, it is difficult to see from where Grenvilles’ requested ships were going to materialise. As a result, Grenville then sent a similar letter, regarding his situation, to the Marquess of Ormonde in Ireland and the letter clearly shows how he had little or no control over the pirates during his short time at Scilly: the fleet called here yesterday as they passed by into Ireland, but we have heard no news of them since- he wrote. Even the local islanders seemingly had little faith in Grenville, as by March 19th 1649 they felt compelled enough to write a petition to Prince Rupert asking him to: give a thought to the defence of these islands. Just as some had feared, Grenville was failing to organise anything successfully and everyone had deserted him. The timing was perfect for Parliament to take control of Scilly and they seized upon the opportunity.

With Grenville’s inclusion on the scene coming so late in 1648, and him having no ships at his disposal until1650, it is therefore unclear how any adverse effects were to be inflicted on shipping by Grenville during his time here. Moreover, the records show that Grenville did not take to piracy until forced to do so, and that action was just prior to his surrender in 1651, after just two years of service at Scilly. The wording in the following reference speaks volumes when Grenville states that he was: obliged to take desperate measures, sending out his frigates to attack and plunder, and act as pirates - This was in order to gain food and provisions which were desperately needed on the islands at that time. Reports or complaints of pirates operating anywhere in the area were simply assumed to be under Grenville’s command, even when they were not. One record, previously used to show evidence of Grenville’s involvement in piracy, also shows the small size of the frigates he eventually received. (Even armed rowing boats were called Frigates at this time) This one and only action was near the town of Swansea. Unfortunately for Grenville, (or true to form) the action ended in total disaster: A frigate of Sir John Grenville, Governor of Scilly, with two brass guns, and twenty four muskets, and twenty four oars, coming near Swansea, the Governor of Cardiff sent out boats, pursued the frigate from creek to creek, and at length took her and the men. This action was not piracy at sea, it was a desperate measure; a failed amphibious attempt with a large boat to gain much needed supplies. Moreover, Grenville, was not even present but clearly those under his command had no heart for the fight either, as they seem to have been easily captured by the opposition. The real problem of piracy and continual thorn in the side of Parliament and the Merchants at sea, both in England and in Holland, had been as a direct result of the work of Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell and, latterly, in the part of Prince Rupert. The piracy that so incensed the Dutch to want to take action against Scilly, had been going on since 1643; long before the arrival of Grenville. Mucknell had then took command of the pirates from January 1645 onwards. This piracy had simply been continuing on in the seas all around Scilly before, as well as during, Grenvilles’ Governorship at Scilly. When, in October 1650, the State of the Commonwealth proposed to: Take in hand the reduction of the Islands; Scilly being the most important of these stations, for cruisers from these Islands ply on the soundings and levy a toll on all homeward bound trade, English and foreign alike. The council realises that it would be of great service to take Scilly and to inform the Generals at sea of this decision - it was in fact the third time, in recent years, that a large Parliamentarian fleet had gathered in the Downs for that same purpose. (Twice under Admiral Batten and once under Admiral Blake) Just prior to Admiral Blake retaking Scilly in1651, and Grenvilles’ inevitable surrender of the Islands as a result of it, Grenville seems to have been supplied with four small frigates- but it was too little, too late. Two of these vessels were wrecked soon after arrival and the other two were easily captured in New Grimsby Channel, near Tresco, by Blake. Parliament then replaced Grenville as Governor with Joseph Hunkyn. Blake then turned his attentions towards Rupert and Mucknell. To find out more about Piracy at Scilly and what happened to Rupert and Mucknell, please read my book entitled The Pirate John Mucknell- which is currently available. or on Kindle.